Authors: James Axler
Tags: #Speculative Fiction Suspense
Brigid waited a long time in the empty cavern, tied to the chair with nothing but the mirror for company. She tried to remember what had happened after she and her companions had arrived at Cerberus via the mat-trans and engaged with the hooded intruders, but every time her mind thought back on it, she found herself distracted by something in the mirror, certain she could see someone stalking toward her from behind. When she looked more closely, she saw it was nothing, just the dark shadows of the cavern playing tricks in the faintly swirling magma lighting.
And yet she could not relax. The mirror was like a ghost thing, an object sent to haunt her, to render her in a permanent state of anxiety. Perhaps that had been Ullikummis's plan all along, to leave her with this simple torture, this way to seize her mind, her most powerful weapon.
So she watched the mirror, studied her reflection. Her cheeks were dirty, scuffed with grime. There was a crescent-shaped bruise dominating the righthand side of the face in the mirror. She remembered now how the magnetic desk tidy had been thrown at her, smashing her so hard she had felt the ache in her teeth.
But outside the ops room, it had been worse. There had been blood, washing down the walls and across the floor, a ghastly glistening sheet of crimson a half inch
thick, enough to turn her stomach. She, Kane, Grant and Domi had stopped dead in their tracks, horrified by that sea of red swirling around their feet.
The lighting of the tunnel-like main corridor had been strobing on and off, illuminating the high rock ceiling in a firework staccato, flashing against the steel girders that held the roof in place above them.
Amid the pulsing lighting, Brigid had seen several figures lying motionless. She'd recognized Henny Johnson lying facedown in the pooling blood, her short dark bob matted against the side of her face. Automatically, Brigid had hurried over to the woman, her boots splashing in the wash of blood.
“Henny?” she'd asked, rolling the woman's head. “Henny, are youâ?”
She'd stopped. Henny's eyes were open, but there was no acknowledgment on her blood-drenched face. Above her lifeless eyes, a wicked bruise showed across her pale forehead, and there was a clear indentation in her skull above her right eye. She was dead, struck by a stone.
Gently, Brigid had closed Henny's eyelids, giving the armorer what little dignity she could in her final rest.
“Life spilled,” Domi had said, lifting one bare foot and looking at the blood oozing into the cracks and ridges between her toes. “Nasty shit.”
“What happened to the power?” Brigid asked, glancing to Domi as she stepped away from Henny's fallen form. Domi had been the only one of them on site when the attack had begun; she was their only hope now of piecing things together.
“They attacked like locusts,” she explained. “Swarmed through the redoubt before we could respond. I watched on the monitors as they surged through the doors like a tidal wave. A tidal wave of people.”
“It makes no sense,” Brigid argued. “How could they just walk in?”
Domi raised her hands in a gesture of defeat, the Detonics Combat Master still clutched in her right fist. “They didâthat's all I know. It was so quick, Brigid. You wouldn't believe.”
“They must have planned it, then,” Grant growled from where he was checking on one of the rooms that led off from the main artery. The room was empty, but the thin pool of blood was spreading across the floor even here.
Kane turned to Domi as the foursome continued hurrying along the wide corridor, he and Grant checking the side rooms with brutal efficiency in a standard Magistrate sweep pattern. “They must have got to the generator,” he surmised. “That's why the lights are on the fritz. But I don't get itâwhy didn't anyone stop them?”
“We tried, Kane,” Domi told him hotly. “There are dead people all aboutâyou notice that?”
Kane stopped, looking about him as if for the first time. The blood, the bodies, the ruin of familiar places. It seemed faintly unreal.
“Kane,” Grant called, standing in the doorway of one of the rooms. “You need to seeâ¦”
Kane had hurried over to join his partner, Brigid and Domi just a step behind him. Grant was standing at the door to a closet used for storing cleaning supplies. The light inside the cupboard was flashing on and off, making a tinkling note each time it winked on. Inside, Cerberus physician Reba DeFore was crouched on the floor, pulling her knees in close to her face. She was sobbing in silence, her shoulders shaking as she tried to stifle each cry.
“Reba?” Kane asked. “DeFore, it's me. It's Kane.”
The medic looked up, her brown eyes rimmed with red as she peered through the untidy mess of her blonde hair. DeFore had always taken special care with her hair, forming elaborate creations with the ash blonde tresses, different every day. Kane had never seen her like this.
“Reba?” Kane said again, his voice gentle. “Come on, it's okay. What happened here? What happened to you?”
As he stepped forward, Kane felt the liquid under his heel, and realized that Reba DeFore was sitting in a pool of blood. She continued to shake as he approached her.
“He's here,” DeFore said, her voice breathless with fear. “I saw him.”
Brigid was standing in the doorway, listening to their companion's words. “He who?” she asked.
“The stone man,” DeFore explained.
Brigid could still remember the chilling sense of dread in DeFore's tone, as if a part of her sanity had been stripped away.
ACK IN THE CAVE
, there was movement in the mirror. Brigid shifted in her seat, feeling her tension rise as she warily watched the huge stone figure appear from the shadows. It was Ullikummis, the glowing strands of lava glittering across his charcoal flesh.
Brigid tried to turn, but couldn't shift her head far enough, and was forced to watch the reflection of the great stone god striding toward her in the dim light. He stopped directly behind her, peering over her head at his own reflection in the mirror.
“You see the mirror?” Ullikummis asked.
Brigid studied the reflection of his craggy stone face looming out of the darkness above her own. He looked damaged, the stonework more ruined than she
remembered, as if hit with buckshot, or a dead thing eaten by worms.
“Yes.” She nodded, the word little more than a breath.
She saw the stone colossus move his hands then, reaching behind her until she felt his hard, cool fingers pressing against the nape of her neck.
“What are you doing?” she blurted, unable to keep the fear out of her voice.
“Watch the mirror, Brigid,” Ullikummis replied, “for in it is contained your future.”
Brigid felt something drag along the nape of her neck, bumping over the vertebrae there where it pressed against her skin. It felt like needles, or the feet of an insect playing along her spine.
“Please,” she said, cursing herself for showing weakness in front of her enemy.
Then she felt something jab at her skin, and she stifled a cry of pain. Something was pressing into her, pushing against the flesh at the back of her neck.
“Please stop,” Brigid cried. “Please tell me whatâ”
Ullikummis met her eyes in the mirror as he worked something at the top of her spine. “You have fought with the Annunaki for the longest time as apekin measure,” he stated, as Brigid felt the hidden thing burrowing into her flesh. “Have you never wondered what it is like to be one of us?”
Brigid screamed as something clawed beneath her flesh, plucking at the ganglion of nerves that wrapped around her spine.
“Are you aware of casements, Brigid?” Ullikummis asked.
She couldn't answer. Her mouth was frozen open in
silent agony as the sharp thing, whatever it was, continued to pull at her beneath her skin.
“Other worlds,” Ullikummis continued, “a theory of alternatives where futures may be played out differently.”
Brigid had heard of the theory, had been privy to it on occasion, where a future with Kane as her lover had been foreseen. She tried to focus her mind on the words Ullikummis was saying in his gravelly tones, tried to reach past the pain as her body struggled against its ties.
“I was taught by a wise Annunaki named Upelluri,” Ullikummis told her, his voice like the grinding of stone. “Upelluri once explained to me how the Annunaki differ from humans by explaining their simple-minded concept of the casements. He said that naive and short-sighted philosophers had misinterpreted them, treating the different vibrational frequencies as one would the rooms of a house. Instead, Upelluri had compared it to looking in a mirror.”
Brigid rocked in place, wailing in pain as the thing burrowed through her spine, seeming to tear at her very being. “Please,” she howled. “Please stop.” Her breath was coming faster and faster, a runaway steam locomotive hurrying to disaster.
Ullikummis reached forward with one hand, clasping her head by the crown, holding it rigidly in place as she tried to squirm, forcing her to look into the mirrored glass.
“You see your reflection,” Ullikummis explained, “and behind it you see the reflection of the cavern beyond, and the cavern in the mirror appears to have depth. But in reality, the whole thing is but a picture on a flat, reflective surface, with no more depth than the surface of a blade of grass.”
Brigid stared at her reflection, at the thing that loomed behind her, even as pain surged across her back like fire.
“Close your eyes,” Ullikummis instructed.
She tried to shake her head, to tell this nightmarish thing that walked like a man no.
“Close your eyes,” Ullikummis repeated, “and the pain will pass.”
Her breathing was coming so fast now, the steam engine jumping the tracks and hurtling off the cliff. The pain was oblique, an impossible thing to calculate, to comprehend. She closed her eyes, praying it wasn't a trick, praying that Ullikummis was not toying with her as a cat toys with a mouse.
“This world,” she heard Ullikummis intone, “this galaxy with all its depth and color and differenceâthis is but the image on the surface of the mirror to the Annunaki. That was how Upelluri explained your ways to me.”
Brigid waited, eyes closed, feeling the thing rummaging beneath her spine, like a rapist's hand tugging at the hair at the nape of her neck, plunging her down, down, down. She whined, a gasp coming through clenched teeth.
“Don't fight,” Ullikummis instructed placidly. “Relax, Brigid.”
Brigid struggled to hold herself still as the burning continued, trying the whole while to pretend it wasn't happening, that it wasn't there.
“You fought with my father,” Ullikummis said thoughtfully, after a long pause. “I saw this when I imbibed time in the Ontic Library. You fought with my father, and others of our race, of the Annunaki.”
In her fixed position in the seat, Brigid squirmed as the pain shifted, reaching down her back like claws.
“I saw there,” Ullikummis continued, “that you have exceptional knowledge for an apekin, aâ¦” he stopped, as if trying to recall the word “â¦human. And yet you never questioned what it was you fought.”
“Tried,” Brigid replied, the single word coming out as a gasp between her gnashing teeth.
“They acted like you,” Ullikummis said. “My father and the other overlords were aliens to your world, yet they behaved like you, like actors on a stage, dressed in masks and rubber suits. Humans in everything but appearance,” he mused, adding as if in afterthought, “and perhaps stamina. Yet you never questioned this.”
“They had technology,” Brigid began, her words strained. “They differed fromâ”
“No, they did not,” he interrupted. “The Annunaki are beautiful beings, multifaceted, crossing dimensions you cannot begin to comprehend. Their wars are fought on many planes at once. The rules of their games intersect only tangentially with Earth and its holding pen of stars. What you have seen is only a sliver of what the battle was, and the Annunaki have shamed themselves in portraying it thus.”
Brigid listened, wondering at what Ullikummis was telling her. She recalled travelling to the distant past via a memory trap, and seeing the Annunaki as their slaves, the Igigi, perceived them. They had been beautiful, just as Ullikummis was telling her, shining things that seemed so much more real than the world around them, colored beings amid a landscape of gray. But when she had faced Enlil, Marduk and the others in her role as a Cerberus rebel, they had been curiously ordinary. Yes, they were stronger, faster, supremely devious, but they
wereâwhat?âthe thing that Ullikummis called them? Actors on a stage? People dressed in masks and rubber suits like some hokey performance designed for children? Had Brigid and her companions been taken in by a performance, a show designed to entertain the feeble-minded?
As Brigid considered this thought, Ullikummis spoke once more in his gruff, throaty growl. “They started their current cycle as hybrids, half human, half advanced DNA. The human part clings, holding them back. If you saw the true battles between the gods, if you had witnessed the ways they fought across the planes millennia ago, you would never even recognize the creatures you fought as the Annunakiâyou would think them a joke.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Brigid asked, baffled.
In reply, Ullikummis gave a single, simple instruction. “Open your eyes, Brigid.”
She did so, found herself staring into her own green eyes in the mirror as the agony in her back abated, faded to nothingness. The mirror was like a drawing, a picture that could be falsified, that owed no one the truth.
Brigid let out a slow breath, felt her heart still pounding against her rib cage. The pain in the back of her neck was gone as if it had never been.
“Do you understand now?” Ullikummis asked, his voice coming from above her head.
Brigid nodded. “I'm beginning to,” she said.